WASHINGTON, George (1732-1799), President. Letter signed ("G:o Washington"), as Commander in Chief, to General Benjamin Tallmadge, Headquarters, West Point, 24 September 1779. 3½ pp., folio, text in the hand of aide James McHenry, creases very discreetly mended.
INVISIBLE INK, A NEW YORK SPY AND THE "CULPER RING": WASHINGTON AS SPYMASTER
Here we see Washington relishing the daring game of espionage, telling his spymaster Benjamin Tallmadge how to manage a key New York agent, Robert Townsend (1753-1838), known by the code name "Culper Jr." Townsend was the central figure in the so-called "Culper ring" of New York and Long Island spies. Washington also launches into a lengthy discussion of the mechanics of espionage, suggesting methods for transmitting intelligence. "It is not my opinion," Washington begins, "that Culper junr. should be advised to give up his present employment. I would imagine that with a little industry, he will be able to carry on his intelligence with greater security to himself and greater advantages to us, under cover of his usual business, than if he were to dedicate himself wholly to the giving of information. It may afford him opportunities of collecting intelligence, that he could not derive so well in any other manner. It prevents also those suspicions which would become natural should he throw himself out of the line in his present employment. He may rest assured of every proper attention being paid to his services."
Townsend--whose true identity was concealed even from Washington (by the Commander-in-Chief's own preference)--owned a merchant's shop in New York City and had business dealings on Long Island. He also wrote for a local newspaper, giving him the cover to ask questions of British officers without arousing suspicion. Washington then goes on to suggest the best devices for receiving information. Since "the scrutiny of the enemy...is chiefly directed against paper made up in the form of letters," Washington thought "Culper" should occasionally write his intelligence "on the blank leaves of a pamphlet; on the first second &c. pages of a common pocket book; on the blank leaves at such end of registers almanacks or any new publication or book of small value." Letters could also be used as long as they were sufficiently disguised using invisible ink, which Washington referred to as a "stain." "He may write a familiar letter, on domestic affairs, or on some little matters of business to his friend at Sautuket or elsewhere, interlining with the stain, his secret intelligence or writing it on the opposite blank side of the letter." The letters containing intelligence matters could be coded by leaving off the date and place (then putting the date in invisible ink), "or fold them up in a particular manner, which may be concerted between the parties...and may be the signal of their being designed for me."
Townsend's messages made their way to Washington by a circuitous route, starting with Austin Roe, who would take documents from Townsend's shop out to Setaucket, Long Island, where he would leave them in a drop box adjoining the property of Aaron Woodhull ("Culper, Sr."). Reading a set of pre-arranged signals on the clothesline of neighbor Anna Strong, Woodhull would know when and where to ferry his material across an inlet to Caleb Brewster, who then rowed across Long Island Sound to a waiting Benjamin Tallmadge (alias "John Bolton"), then Tallmadge relayed the intelligence to Washington by a series of armed couriers. Washington and Townsend each possessed the set of chemicals needed to swab the papers and bring the invisible ink back to light.
Washington thought Culper's reports first rate. "His accounts are intelligent, clear and satisfactory," he told Tallmadge on 5 February 1780. "I rely upon his intelligence." He only wished he could receive reports more quickly and by a more direct route. The extended chain of communication was slow and vulnerable. The British even captured a Washington letter to Woodhull--one that referred to "Culper"--in 1779, but they never figured out who he was. Townsend took his secret identity with him to the grave in 1838. In all the decades after the Revolution he never sought recognition for his contributions to the Patriot cause. His double life remained a secret until the 20th century when Long Island historian Morton Pennypacker matched the handwriting in "Culper Jr's" letters to Washington with the script contained in ledgers and other documents found in Oyster Bay, belonging to a hitherto obscure New York and Long Island merchant. Published, Fitzpatrick, 16:330-332.